The frontiers of learning are opening up, but schools must have the resources to take advantage, warns Nigel Paine
The CD is blaring from my daughter's bedroom while she is doing her homework. It is one of her favourite bands called Offspring: "Nothing changes and it's all the same, the world you get's the one you give away, and so it goes on all down the line."
Why should the National Grid for Learning make any difference to this rather gloomy and pessimistic view of, not just the world in general, but education in particular? The reason we are so bullish at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology about the National Grid is not because it is one more new idea to transform education like film strips, video, closed-circuit television and all the other things that came before.
The National Grid for Learning is an enabling technology that exploits the growing ubiquity of information that is pumped around the world in an endless stream. Changes that it will make in schools will be as far-reaching as the changes that the introduction of electricity made earlier this century. It will change the way the school relates to the world, the way that teachers relate to pupils and the way that pupils relate to teachers. It has the power to transform learning. We will have set this in train by the beginning of the new century, but it could well take a generation for it to work through fully.
So let us take 2002 and suggest some of the ways that Jenny, a primary school teacher, and Sam, a second-year secondary pupil, might exploit these new facilities. Jenny is trying to grapple with environmental studies. She wants to put over the simple context of action and reaction. She has used her whiteboard to draw diagrams, but she wants to give the pupils the opportunity to witness what she has described in theory.
She uses the Scottish Virtual Teacher Centre as her first point of call on the Internet and checks out the curriculum site. A quick keyword search takes her to a database in California which includes a very useful animation, the exact concept she wants to use. She downloads it and puts it on the school server.
The next morning, before the class, she creates a folder for each pupil in her class and sets them some simple questions relating to the piece of software. Pupils work in small groups, increasing and decreasing the amount of force, hitting the animated object on the screen, timing the reaction for the object to come to a halt and tabulating the results on a simple database which the pupils then graph.
By the end of the session, they are all discussing their graphs and the similarities and variations, and for the first time, she can see that the difficult theory she had been discussing the day before has been grasped as a concept by her pupils. They also had a great time using the animation and one or two have asked if it can be put on the school intranet so that they can show their parents, using their home computer. She suggests that a number of the graphs could also be put on the intranet to show the work that the pupils have done.
Incidentally, Jenny had mentioned in an online discussion group (which she also joined through the Virtual Teacher Centre) that she had been using this animation to demonstrate that scientific principle. Within a couple of days about 20 teachers from all over Scotland had asked for more information and one suggested an alternative resource.
Sam's class, meanwhile, has been asked to look at a number of other parliaments around the world and compare how they operate to the new Scottish parliament. Because all the MSPs are on e-mail, the class have already asked a number of questions of their local MSP who has e-mailed back a detailed reply, including a number of useful documents.
At home Sam e-mails his cousin in Melbourne to ask about how the government there operates. Cindy had not really thought about it before, but she takes the opportunity to go to the Victorian website and the national government website and collects some information which she sends back to Sam. He formulates a number of comparison points between Scotland and Australia, and sends those to the Catalan government website in Barcelona.
Back comes a reply the next day which he picks up at school, outlining the Catalan relationship with the government in Madrid. Sam assembles this work during the lunch hour, ready for submission into the class folder the next day. Many other countries have also been contacted by the pupils and the resulting discussion creates some interesting points about the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish system.
The final report is e-mailed to their MSP with an invitation for her to address the school about the workings of the parliament. The MSP comes back, electronically, suggesting perhaps a video-conference with other local schools.
This is not pie in the sky; it is all possible. The Scottish Virtual Teacher Centre will be launched in August by the SCET and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum with curriculum resources and information, teacher discussion groups and much more.
The Scottish parliament will be wired and there will be opportunities to talk to MSPs, while the Internet already offers huge advantages in gathering information from all round the world. The key will be the physical infrastructure that links all this together, coupled with time and effort to help teachers to gain competence. Both of these are deliverable, but both require imagination, negotiation and a few hurdles to cross between now and 2002.
The SCET is very optimistic about the possibilities, but we are still saying only two cheers for the National Grid, as there is much left to prove.
Nigel Paine is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.